Car Navigation Systems Before GPS Were Wonders of Analog Technology


Speaking of subtle sexism, it’s also comical that the entire DAIR brochure I previously linked to strictly assumes the reader is a man. The very idea of a woman purchasing—or even being interested in a car was just ridiculous. Totally out of the question. 

Why would a woman want a car? It’s like men saw their wives as a completely different and perplexing species of animals. My wife? A car? What would she do with it?

The Honda Electro Gyrocator | 1981

The real breakthrough in non-GPS-based navigation systems came in 1981 with Honda’s Electro Gyrocator. And bear with me here, because some of the technology involved is simultaneously very unusual and extremely impressive.

The Electro Gyocator was a $2,746 ($7,745 today) option available in late 1981 model Accords and Vigors, which is the Japanese version of the Acura TL. 

The way the Electro Gyrocator works is simple on the surface. There’s a six-inch CRT screen that sits behind one of several semi-transparent map overlays. As the car moves, it determines its position as compared to its point of origin using a series of data inputs from the car and instruments within the system itself. Using this information, it advances a blinking dot⁠—which represents your car⁠—on the screen. When this dot is combined with the map overlay, it tells you where you are. It is worth noting that this system was only available in Japan, and Japan was the only country for which compatible maps were produced.

But this whole system wasn’t quite so simple under the skin. To determine the car’s location from it’s POI, the Electro Gyrocator used both a speed sensor gathering data from the transmission and a special kind of gyroscope. This gyroscope (this is the part where you’ll have to bear with me) used circulating helium in order to determine changes in direction. It’s tough to really explain how it works, so I’ll just quote the IIEE:

“Honda developed a number of devices to make the Electro Gyrocator work, including a gyroscope that had two wires in a stream of circulating helium. When the vehicle moved straight ahead, helium hit both wires equally, keeping them at the same temperature. When the vehicle turned, the flow of helium deviated to produce a temperature difference between the two wires. An onboard computer could detect that difference and translate it into directional information.”

All of this technology added up a device weight of about 20 pounds along with its aforementioned hefty price tag, which doubled the Accord’s MSRP. And while this system was impressive, there are no records of how many people actually bought into the experiment. Needless to say, I couldn’t find any for sale online. One example is on display in the Honda Collection Hall at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit. 

The Etak Navigator | 1985

The Etak Navigator was essentially a slightly more refined and digitized version of the Electro Gyrocator. It used a compass and information gathered from the car’s wheel speed sensors to figure out which direction the vehicle was going. It would combine that data with digital maps stored on cassettes, allowing for real-time, turn-by-turn navigation that Honda’s static maps couldn’t offer.

The Etak was released in 1985, and it looks exactly like the piece of future-facing ’80s technology it is.

Just like the Gyrocator, the Etak was expensive at $3,324 in today’s money. It also had to be professionally installed at a local car stereo or car phone specialist. Yes, a car phone specialist. 

Map cassettes—which typically consisted of a city’s metropolitan area—were also $35 each. That’s about $83 today. 

Despite the high cost, large trucking companies saw Etak’s systems as an easy way to improve logistics, and they ended up being common customers. This allowed Etak to grow rapidly, and the company changed hands several times with ever-increasing sale prices for years. The death knell for Etak, of course, was when the U.S. government unlocked non-degraded GPS signals for public use in 2000, birthing an entire industry of dash-mounted aftermarket units before in-dash solutions took over a decade later. 

But with Google Maps still years away, the valuable part of Etak turned out to be the map data it had compiled in order for its offline systems to operate. Its final buyer, TomTom, would end up using Etak’s map data in its own GPS units. 

So while satellites are the norm for automotive navigation today, it’s not like nothing existed beforehand. Gyroscope-based systems may not have been good enough to be shrunken down into a device the size of your cellphone, but they were certainly better—and much more expensive—than using a map spread out on the trunk of your car. 

And as far as those antiquated scrolling maps go, they’re actually still in use in motorcycle rallying today.

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